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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Guest Post: Readers are Doomed!

I'm pleased to welcome another guest blogger today, Nigel Edwards from Letsgetpublished.com.

As you'll see from his article below, Nigel has some strong views about what the future holds for readers - and, by extension, writers. I'll let you read what he has to say, then give my personal response to his comments.

Readers are Doomed to Extinction!

That's a bald statement to read, isn't it? As it stands I imagine many, if not most writers would call it a ridiculous notion - but is it? Let me explain my thinking.

Ask this question: why is the written word so popular? The answer is that books provide the medium for people to indulge in their fantasies. They bring us escape from the drudgery and indifference of modern living, and have done so for a long, long time. Stories have entertained us for thousands of years, though only comparatively recently has the written word replaced the narrator. Imagine in pre-history a camp-fire was lit, and around it huddled a hunting party, squatting by its glowing warmth to hear their leader recount the time when he single-handedly bested a wild and enraged boar? That was perhaps the beginning of an oral tradition that was long appreciated, and indeed still is in some dwindling corners of the world; but this is the important point: where in modern society are the oral story-tellers now? What happened to that tradition? It's virtually gone. Why?

Once upon a time, someone figured out a way to capture thoughts and ideas in a physical medium and, to cut a long story short, invented writing. At first it was crude and limited, but over time it grew in sophistication until it came to a point where you didn't specifically need a story-teller with a great memory and a good voice; all you needed was to have someone write the words, thereby replacing the memory, and someone to read them - and remember, reading can be done silently. At first, as we know, the art of reading and writing was rare, and only a few had the skill. The old story-teller still had his place, perhaps as the reader of narrative, but by the time we come to the present day his presence is virtually nil, made redundant by education which spread the ability to read and write far and wide. When the general populace finally reached the point where the majority could read, I can imagine that there would still have been many people who remembered the enjoyment of the camp-fire and preferred to be read to, rather than read for themselves; but gradually their number declined, and with the advent of mass book production they all but disappeared.

And it's going to happen again. Sort of.

Who reads for pleasure today? According to many reports that I have come across the number of people actually reading books for pure enjoyment is on the decline. The reason is new technology. As the introduction of writing resulted in the death of oral tradition, so will the presence of new, more exiting methods of communication replace the book. It's a spreading canker. Take the cinema. A really good writer can construct a story that is gripping and thrilling, and can compete well with the cinema, except on one front - the reader has to interact with the story, become involved with it, and this requires the active use of their brain. You actually have to do some mental work to get the best out of a book. Now compare that with the cinema. What does it take to simply sit in a seat and let the mesmeric film envelope you. There's no need to read thousands of words to imagine the final confrontation at the OK Corral - there it is in glorious colour and surround sound, dished up for your gratification for the price of a ticket.

Do you see where this is leading, yet?

Take television. You don't need to go to the cinema to see and hear the movie; today it gets piped directly into your home. Press the button and there it is. You can record it, or buy the DVD, and play it over and over without having to exercise your interpretive powers one little bit. Then there are computers. You don't even need a television any more; just download the feature or film you want onto your laptop or desktop, or even your mobile phone! Entertainment wherever you go, and no more need to cart cumbersome volumes to your deckchair on the beach. Just pick up the phone and enjoy.

What this means is that the reader, the one thing over which no author has any control, no longer needs to read to get their pleasure. And if they don't need to, they won't. It's because they- we - are lazy. We always look for the easiest way to do something, and if we can get our thrills passively, why should we bother with getting them in any other way? The story-teller died out because he was old-fashioned, because people either had to go to him, or wait until he came to them; and people today are taking the next step, which is to discount the written word in favour of the instant gratification of immediate explosions of light and sound pulsed almost directly into their brains. You might say that technology has become the new story-teller. Could it be that we are coming full circle?

Not convinced?

The demographics for reading are changing. The days when our children all enjoyed the delight of a bedtime story are disappearing. How many youngsters now will pick up a book when there is the alternative of television, computer games, and the internet? Here's a bold prediction for you: within my lifetime the average age of a regular reader will rise to 60. Within 100 years the number of books being sold will drop to a point where the supermarkets don't even bother to stock them. Within 200 years the only people to read for pleasure will be the few remaining authors themselves, devouring each others' words in sad, cannibalistic indulgence. Let me know if I was wrong! ;)

So, not only the end for readers, but authors too in the general sense. Only those who can successfully adopt the skills needed to produce stories for translation into multi-sensual experiences will be able to make their way to public acclaim, and reap the rewards thereby associated. Why bother writing the intermediate step of a book when you can go straight for the final product? It's a corporate world we live in, and the money that is its blood will demand economies to maximise profit. The old fashioned, traditional writer of words for pleasure will become redundant, and virtually extinct.

Of course, I could be wrong...

Nigel Edwards, founder of Let's Get Published (http://www.letsgetpublished.com ) and author of PRISM - EXILES (http://www.lulu.com/nigeledwards - http://www.angrywildlegends.com ).

Thanks for a thought-provoking piece, Nigel. I largely agree with the points made above, although I think it will be a while yet before books become a thing of the past. Yes, people increasingly want their entertainment in multimedia formats. But equally, you only have to look around any beach or swimming pool on a hot summer's day to see that books still have something going for them. And it's still the case that popular films and TV series are spun-off into book form.

But Nigel is definitely right about one thing - writers today need to become (multi)media savvy. Even 'literary' authors can longer afford to focus exclusively on producing fine prose, when in many cases it is the potential for a book to be adapted into a variety of media that determines whether or not publishing it will be viable.

Anyway, those are Nigel's thoughts, and my responses. What do YOU think? Feel free to post any comments below!

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9 Comments:

Blogger leonard waks said...

There is a serious problem with this analysis.

The number of advantageous jobs in our society is declining. Competition for these jobs is increasing. Competition for places at the elite colleges is now unimaginably cut-throat, because only these colleges will provide the most important access benefit: connections to elites.

You do not get into these colleges by playing computer games, or watching movies on your iphone.

You get in by making a habit of doing things that are hard and lonely. Like reading a lot.

And all studies show that among leaders in almost every field of endeavor, the distinguishing feature between them and the also- rans is that the leaders read. A lot!

So for the great masses who will need opiates to kill the pain of their meagre existences, let them eat cake and watch movies on their phones.

For those who make a difference, reading will be even more essential than ever.

2:25 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

Good point, Leonard. Although even in education nowadays, the Internet and multimedia products are supplanting traditional books to a certain extent.

2:39 PM  
Anonymous Nigel Edwards said...

Yes, good point; and Nick is also correct. I work for an education company, probably the largest in the UK, whose products are resident in some 22,000 schools in England alone. My sister is a teacher, and my wife is a HLTA. I know from immediate 2nd hand that multi-media education is encroaching, and the pace of infiltration is quickening. Such education formats will continue to become more and more accepted, especially as governments strive to make their mark as the one that 'changed the face of teaching'. If nothing else does, I believe politics will force the change. :)

9:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmmm..interesting..
What i see here is Worry or Fear for the Uncertaintity of the Future..
Everything is changing, nothing is stagnant..so what's going to happen will happen in its' own timing..though we worry about it or not..
Written Words holds full power yet, so why not enjoy creating with that for the moment, instead of feeling uncertain for the unknown future..?
Gloom or Bloom is only two sides of the same coin.."Accept as it is"..is my mantra for this!!

3:06 AM  
Anonymous Ann Isik said...

There's something missing from this idea of the demise of the book. A book in the hand is a wonderful thing. If it smells musty, so much the better. If it is illustrated on the cover and/or inside, great. A room lined with books, which are all of them portals to multi-dimensional worlds beyond the bookshelves, is the most comforting thing. They cut heating bills and are great sound muffles! Books are like boxes, you HAVE to open them to see what's inside. I spend hours browsing obscure smelly book shops, especially the corners where bits and pieces have been chucked. I've found some gems in corners! Nope, the book will never die. Balderdash and poppycock.

11:30 PM  
Blogger leonard waks said...

The points that Nick and Nigel make are quite irrelevant to my point. Yes, e-learning is encroaching. (My own son goes to an e-school). Yes, governments will, if not take the lead (as some are doing), at least not stand in the way. I have explained why this is so in an article called "Globalization, State Transformation, and Education," which the diligent can track down in STUDIES IN PHILOSOPHY AND EDUCATION for 2006.

My point is, while education for the great masses will move in this direction, two other things are true:

(1) those who wish to gain access to advantageous positions in society will compete for places in the top universities, and readers will be at a huge advantage for getting in, staying in, and making their marks there; and

(2) the leaders in every field of endeavor will continue to be those who read and think a lot.

1:53 AM  
Blogger Barni-Google said...

SHE TAKING ON WATER CAP'N!

I'm certain that the demise of readerSHIP is doggedly setting up living quarters in the hearts of todays youth. Nobody outside of Publishers and Writers [it could be argued], can be feeling the uneasiness of the situation to the extent they'd be willing to do something about it.
A suggested focus would be on the primary school system, if blame is to be levied. I've read of teachers trudging through the tedium of carrying on the daily grind knowing that half the kids are simply not able to read and understand because the process has not been effectively installed in their mind to begin with. Like water, the school admin seeks the course of least resistance. There are far too many parents who are loaded for bear and carry a basket of rotten eggs to throw at the teacher.
"Make life easier for my kid at school"...seems to be the chant of the masses. Aggressive publishers as I understand it are changing tack and advertising books with animated, sound enhanced blips in multimedia format. Sounds commensurate with the situation but education administrators need to be encouraged to build up a backbone and lobby in the house for a return to tougher standards.
Just-build-up - don't tear down.

6:32 PM  
Anonymous Nigel Edwards said...

I love your reply, Barni, especially the nautical references! Very Droll! And I agree with what you say, if I’ve read it right. There is, and has been for many years, a decline in the appreciation of teaching and education in general. I believe it's largely down to the way the authority of the parent has been eroded by liberalist attitudes, that have pushed old-fashioned parenting skills down the ladder in favour of preserving the ‘rights’ of children, and this has filtered up the ladder by osmosis to the point where the authority of teachers has similarly become diluted. Diluted, I might add, to the point where ‘authority’ itself is almost a dirty word! “Don’t upset the little darlings,” we hear. “They don’t want discipline, they want understanding.”

I’m not saying there haven’t been instances where abuses of position have taken place, or times when discipline has bordered (or even, occasionally, crossed the border of) the bounds of decency, but come on! Does anyone deny that behaviour, in the classroom and out, is worse than it was in living memory, and getting worse all the time? Common disciplines like reading from books, instead of pandering to the demand for interactive engagement so the little darlings ‘don’t get bored’, would make a welcome return in my book!

9:39 PM  
Blogger Barni-Google said...

You got that Nigel.Thanks
I remember in the mid- 1950's that there always had to be someone at the teaching helm who just wanted to make the boating experience a drudgery. 'Has to be someone somewhere in the system who wants to dock sideways. No matter how many kids loved the process of learning - but this kind was few and far between. If you can give them a healthy dose of respect kids
run like deers through any forest of confusion. (Obviously on dry land here.)
Meddling parents are alive and well, and need to give themselves a shake. They can handle life. It's a preparatory exercise- always has been. Forget thinking the information is unusable to the kid.
Very few of us are destined to get rich quick.

6:01 PM  

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